Good News, Bad News

A recent article by Issi Romem points toward the importance of historical perspective in urban policy arguments. By which I mean that not only are there historical patterns to the creation of exurban sprawl and its attendant social pathologies, but a useful understanding of how to reverse these effects requires policymakers (starting with the President!) to recognize that the political and cultural contexts of sprawl matter as much as land economics (indeed, are intrinsic to land economics). Romem offers a summary of key takeways that is pretty clear:

  • The link between housing production and outward expansion is unmistakable: cities that expand more produce proportionally more new housing.

  • Throughout the country, housing production is skewed towards low density areas.

  • Densification has slowed down across the board, and especially in expensive cities, undermining their ability to compensate for less outward expansion.

  • Unless they enact fundamental changes that allow for substantially more densification, cities confronting growth pressure face a tradeoff between accommodating growth through outward expansion, or accepting the social implications of failing to build enough new housing.

The good news is that articles like this point to the phenomenon beginning to be treated less as an artifact of “choice” and more as a product of a sequence of political decisions that have left the majority of Americans with suboptimal housing situations, on top of a historical support for racial and economic segregation and drastically different communities of opportunity.

To be sure, though, Romem looks first to the market:

Why has the pace of densification decreased? One reason is national in scope: despite some fluctuations, the total amount of new housing built each decade in the U.S. has remained fairly constant since the 1950s, but because of urban expansion the area absorbing it has grown much larger. Thus, new housing is spread more thinly, which amounts to less densification. Another way of putting it is that the demand for new housing – or growth pressure – per unit of developed land is less intense than it used to be.

But, a better way of putting it might be that the costs in terms of time, driving miles, and traffic-related social alienation have been gradually shifted onto home buyers and that costs in terms of infrastructure expansion have been shifted onto taxpayers. Despite what sprawl apologists argue (for instance, Wendell Cox at Joel Kotkin’s New Geography embraces a futility thesis critique of “forced density”lateral growth controls), this is not a case of housing priorities being set by rational consumers in a free market, or of liberal-urbanist social engineers tilting in futility against sprawl that is both inevitable and beneficial. Rather, a set of politically motivated and administratively maintained subsidies and incentives to banks, builders, and (in a more conflicted sense) buyers has created sprawl (see Dolores Hayden’s classic Field Guide to start), without the consent of the majority of the people whose daily lives are affected by it. Does not “forced” apply as well to a housing market that imposes a hundred driving miles a day on a home buyer? The equity effects of this form of development are severe; though there are exceptions, mobility in highly decentralized metro areas is a severe impediment to economic opportunity for the poor.

Elsewhere, Romem acknowledges the limits of the market as an explanatory scheme for sprawl, noting that in a real-world setting, markets are affected by choices about resource allocation, and whatever the potential preferences of free agents in the marketplace, the claims made on limited transportation and infrastructure funds by exurban highway expansion are at odds with the expansion of mass transit that is necessary to prevent people from simply bringing their cars into denser developments.

It would also require a leap of faith that in the chicken-and-egg conundrum of density and transportation infrastructure, density can come first.

It’s welcome to see discussions of housing that dig beneath the superficially cheaper houses for sale in sprawling metro areas to consider costs to people, the environment, and the quality of social life.

The bad news stems from Romem’s fourth bullet point: the political (and I’m talking about institutional and cultural forms here) difficulty of enacting densification reforms in already-urbanized areas. While there have been a spate of accounts touting The End of the Suburbs as a seeming market-based response–a back-to-the-city movement based on millennials’ distaste for buying and sitting in cars and Generation X’s reaching an upper limit for commuting endurance–is at best a partial solution, because urban housing is increasing in desirability without a concomitant increase in supply because of land use regulations, cultural norms, and uncoordinated planning and development. The prospect of car-free or car-lite living may be attractive, but as a Brookings Institution report from 2014 indicated, the reduction of car commuting by young workers, while significant, represents a small reduction (workers aged 25-54 showed a 0.9 percent reduction in car commuting between 2007 and 2013).

Romem’s conclusions are intriguing, but there are significant political-economic impediments to achieving them. As Richard Florida notes, Romem describes aptly a “trilemma” of development imperatives, in which cities and metros must balance three objectives, where at least one necessarily suffers.

But this view, as apt a description of the forward-looking policy problems of density and affordability as it might be, leaves out the politics of the trilemma, and the ways in which policies that create sprawl are less a sacrifice of the desire to prevent sprawl for the sake of affordability and growth, but an affirmation of the priorities of political interest groups (real estate developers, home builders, automobile manufacturers, oil companies) in a “sprawl lobby.” Where neither Florida nor Romem quite go is to the conclusion that making density more economic effectively means making sprawl more expensive. We’ll keep waiting for that, I guess.


Of course, there is a role to play for ideas and values in the political arena, and perhaps this seemingly impossible political shift could be enabled by a powerful normative shift around lifestyle. Romem calls, among other things, for an effort to normalize multi-family housing as a child-rearing environment. Again, thinking historically, multi-family, cooperative, and other housing models have been envisioned as not only acceptable, but preferable to the domestic isolation of the single-family house. The problem is, as Dolores Hayden has written, that while the suburban single-family house was a spatial fix for the needs of the real estate, construction, and banking interests of mid-century America as much as those of working families, it met many of those families’ material and emotional needs well enough to become established, and to make alternatives appear impossible.

I’ve shown this 1957 industrial film In the Suburbs to my students for several years in the past, and it always provokes interesting responses. Lizabeth Cohen wrote about it in A Consumer’s Republic, suggesting that it heralded a transformative moment in the public embrace of consumerism. I’m a little less sure of that. The film is only incidentally touting consumer goods; it’s really selling Redbook magazine as a marketing tool to tap the wallets of “young adults” moving to the suburbs. I’ve always been struck by the amount of cultural work needed to normalize what the film subtextually portrays as a new and bewildering lifestyle.

There’s no reason to think that density can’t be as effectively sold, if there is the will to do it.


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